Fashion and fascism – a love story

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John Galliano's anti-Semitic rant cost him his job because it reminded the industry of an unsavoury collaboration

One of the cruel ironies of the John Galliano "I love Hitler" scandal, is that, according to his friends, it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. "I would never in a million years have thought this would happen," said a colleague. "There was never anything remotely bigoted going on. He is a great human being who grew up surrounded by prejudice and told me he had never met anyone remotely like himself until he went to St Martin's school of art."

Yet when the news broke of Galliano's drunken rants – as recorded on camera he told strangers in a Paris bar that he "loved Hitler" and that their parents should have been gassed – his employer, LVMH, which owns Christian Dior, reacted like a scalded cat, suspending him instantly and sacking him soon afterwards. The big names in the fashion business disappeared below the parapet. Only Karl Lagerfeld, head of Dior's arch-rival Chanel as well as his own label, emerged to spit: "I'm furious, if you want to know. I'm furious that it could happen, because the question is no longer even whether he really said it. The image has gone around the world. It's a horrible image for fashion, because they think that every designer and everything in fashion is like this."

Nobody is claiming that Galliano's drunken outbursts reflects a seam of Nazi sympathy in his work: on the contrary, anything less likely to strike a chord with the Nazis than the richly cosmopolitan, gypsy-influenced anarchy of his designs is hard to imagine. So why the scalded-cat reaction? Why might "they" now think "that every designer and everything in fashion is like this"? What has fashion got to hide?

It's one tag a designer really does not need. Social theorists speak of the "scavenging aesthetic" of modern fashion, of designers rooting around among "the archaeology of modernity" for hints and motifs and antiquated garments that resonate now, of how the modern doubles back on itself, as the past returns to "disturb and unsettle the confidence of the modern".

Examples are legion: the fashion historian Caroline Evans singles out the corset, a Victorian antiquity raised from the dead by Vivienne Westwood and Jean-Paul Gaultier in the 1980s, "which became ubiquitous as every major European designer incorporated it into his or her collections."

But amid all the scrabbling and scavenging, there are places in the past you do not go, as certain designers have discovered to their cost. In her Paris menswear collection of 1995, Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons sent two thin young men with shaved heads down the catwalk wearing dressing gowns and striped pyjamas with numbers on them. It didn't help that it was the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz: the brickbats descended, and Kawakubo withdrew the designs, claiming the resemblance was purely accidental. Her career never fully recovered.

Five years later, the Belgian designer Martin Margiela thought it would be neat to have his models walk down the aisle of a train parked in a Parisian railway depot: disco mirror balls notwithstanding, Women's Wear Daily was sure Margiela was evoking the Nazi death trains. His appalled denials were in vain: once a label like that sticks, it's very hard to detach.

Such images, disturbing in themselves, are a particular problem for fashion because of its entanglement with the Nazis during the Second World War. Germany did not conquer France to get its hands on Fashion Central, but it was a not insignificant extra. Fashion had economic weight: one exported couture dress, it is claimed, would pay for a ton of imported coal, and a litre of exported perfume brought in the financial equivalent of two tons of imported fuel oil. But equally important was its prestige: it was a power in its own right. "Any power... is destined to fall before fashion," Mussolini remarked in 1930. "If fashion says skirts are short, you will not succeed in lengthening them, even with the guillotine." The Nazis wanted Berlin to displace Paris as the capital of style, and set about it with typical tact and subtlety, looting the industry's Paris archives.

The switch never happened, but the designers stuck in Vichy France faced a predicament: should they show contempt for the invader by closing down, and firing their employees, who would then be picked up by the Germans as forced labour? Or should they collaborate and cope with the ensuing anathema as best they could?

The Basque genius Cristobal Balenciaga was already sewing dresses for General Franco's wife, and moved on to the wives of Nazi generals without a hiccup. His was one of 60 fashion houses that continued in business.

Coco Chanel is routinely attacked for having made money out of the Nazis during the war. She took a German officer as a lover and was briefly arrested after the Allies re-took Paris; she also took advantage of the law expropriating Jews to try, unsuccessfully, to claw her perfume business back from the Jewish-owned firm to which she had sold it. But her most recent biographer, Justine Picardie, claims that the true story is far more nuanced: Chanel was also close friends with Winston Churchill before the war, her German lover was half-English, and she seems to have made an attempt to broker peace talks between Walter Schellenberg, the Nazi foreign intelligence chief, and the British.

The well-established image of Chanel living it up with her Nazi patrons may be wrong, but it reflects a more interesting truth. In his book Années Erotiques (Erotic Years), the French journalist Patrick Buisson describes how the crushing victory of the Nazis left the French in a state of what he calls "erotic shock". French prisoners in Germany bedded local girls to take revenge for the rape of the homeland; meanwhile in France their wives and sisters were making themselves agreeable to the invader: in 1942, despite the fact that two million Frenchmen were in prisoner-of-war camps, the French birth rate soared.

In this atmosphere charged with emotions of triumph, humiliation and suppressed rage, the population found escape in debauchery, exploring "new territories of pleasure" – having sex in cinemas and Metro stations during air-raid alerts. Simone de Beauvoir joined in. "It was only in the course of those nights that I discovered the true meaning of the word 'party'," she said later.

The overheated atmosphere was reflected in the fashion turned out by those houses that were still in business. There were outfits designed for riding bicycles, and in contrast to the grim austerity suits produced on the other side of the Channel, using the minimum amount of material possible, in Paris gowns ballooned in size, both (it was claimed) as a way to diminish the amount of stuff the Nazis had available for war use but also reflecting the mood of decadent exuberance that helped people to make it through their ordeal.

One item of clothing, however, was a victim of the war: the beret. During the Vichy years, French of all ranks and stations were expected to wear the beret as a symbol of their French identity. But the fact of collaboration tainted it, according to the historian Richard Cobb. "The beret had somehow lost its innocence," he wrote. "It had become politically contaminated... henceforth associated with organised killing." After the war, the French quietly put it away.

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